On Thursday I had the delightful opportunity to meet with three individuals who are currently serving UCC congregations in Vermont and have approached the ministerial standing and standards committee on which I serve about becoming ordained. The interesting thing about this meeting is that these three will not be attending seminary. The reason Thursdays meeting was so delightful was that the three of them talked about why they are in ministry now. . . . hopes, etc
One woman spoke about her childhood, and about attending an episcopal church. About her daydreams during church about becoming a priest. About her mother telling her to be quiet, that women are not priests. She talked about becoming a professor instead. And about becoming active in a small church in So. Vermont, while teaching at SIT. About responding to a call to do interim work there, and experiencing the conflict of motherhood and work – and realizing it would not work.
She described her life as a kind of alternating current.
She was not alone – the other two stories were also stories of fits and starts – of feeling left out – of discovering the unseemly side of churches – of being told no – of discovering that sometimes that “no” comes with a terrible price. And yet . . .
There is a thread between these two scripture readings that we read this morning.
The word perfect used in KJV
The gospel text is more famously known by its concluding verse: be ye perfect, therefore as your heavenly father is perfect.
And the letter to the Hebrews concludes with the benediction, “Now may the God of peace . . . make you perfect in every good work to do his will.”
Most of us are wary of such language. I have never liked the letter to the Hebrews because language like this abounds. The anonymous author of the letter which was probably written in the mid 60’s, some thirty years after Jesus’ death, sounds an awful lot like some of the May 21st ers. The kind of God will take care of absolutely everything. The Hebrews Christians lived under the same kind of persecution that the gentile Christians lived under in Rome – and the author advises them to hang in there and to believe what you don’t see. It’s all understandable in the context of their persecution, but comes across as shallow to us who experience in God, something more than immovable grace acting with unchangeable direction.
In other words, perfect is not a term we use to apply to the realities of love, unless blinded by young love, everything seems perfect. Love may be an ever fix’d mark but there can be no love of any genuine sort that cannot admit impediments and imperfections. Why love, if the object of my love, be that a person or God, is not in some way changed by it, because already perfect?
Unfortunately, the King James Translators did a poor job translating these passages, and we are left feeling inadequate to the invitation of the gospel.
In both passages, the word translated as perfection actually imply a natural process of coming together. In the case of the Hebrews the word implies the knitting back together of a broken bone – the very origin of the image, a knit bone, admits imperfections. In the case of the Matthew passage which comes at the end of a long list of teachings about the good life, to be perfect means to be engaged with the things that matter most and has nothing to whether or not we can be “perfect” in them.
I have been reminded over and over again this past week of the imperfections of people who are engaged in ministry. But I come back to the image of alternating current. Alternating current and direct current electricity both make your lights turn on – both can do the work – but alternating current, in its on again, off again, forward backward movement is able to be transmitted over longer distances for great periods of time than a current that flows only in one direction.
To be perfect, is like this too – it’s about the long haul, and about engaging in the back and forth of love that makes this a possibility for us and for our common ministry.
Let me close be reading a short charge by the great Latin American Archbishop Oscar Romero who was assasinated for his tireless advocacy for the poor.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted,
Knowing they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
Far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything
And there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
And do it well,
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
A stop along the way,
An opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter
And do the rest.
We may never see the end result,
But that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
Ministers, not messiahs,
We are prophets of a future
That is not our own.
There is nothing about this table that Jesus set before his disciples 2000 years ago, and nothing about it now, that implies superiority in behavior, in morals, in understanding. There is a great deal about it however that expresses hope for the future. We gather around the this table and express our confidence that our imperfection is not a barrier to the kind of love that really matters, the kind of love that is open to new ways, to new ideas, to new possibilities. And we say the spirit of God which is here, now, is the spirit which leads us in these ways.
Join me in our call to the table. . . .